The law of attraction debunked

I keep bumping into people who believe in the so-called “law” of attraction and so I thought I would offer a few reasons why I believe it to be an unpersuasive theory about how things really work.

According to the theory, our thoughts create reality. Now there is one sense in which this is obviously true and it boils down to common sense. If you genuinely believe that you are going to achieve a particular goal then you are more likely to be motivated in working towards that goal, which increases your chances of achieving it, and so it makes perfect sense to say that your thoughts have created reality in that particular case. That’s just common sense and doesn’t need a fancy “law” to explain it.

However, the so-called “law” of attraction goes much further than that basic tenet of common sense and this is where it takes a leap into the world of “woo-woo”. It says that your thoughts actually “manifest” reality in the much more literal sense of directly altering the physical Universe itself. I even once heard a rumour that the comedian Jim Carrey claimed to have “manifested” a bike. According to the story, he was simply thinking about a bike and then came home to discover that a bike had magically appeared in his house apparently as a sole result of his thoughts “manifesting” it…

I always assumed that not many people would fall for this kind of superstition and yet I keep bumping into people who insist it’s true. I recently had a conversation with someone who told me that since she very deliberately focused her mind on “manifesting” red cars, more and more red cars were magically appearing in her neighbourhood. She actually believed that her thoughts about red cars were causing these red cars to appear, as though she had god-like powers to literally alter the fabric of physical reality just by having such thoughts.

In my view, there are two main psychological factors at play here.

The first is confirmation bias: she was simply noticing more red cars than ever before because her mind was increasingly focused on them. The fact that she took part in such an experiment to “manifest” red cars meant that her mind was now looking out for them. In the past, she might have noticed red cars occasionally but in a much more vague way since she did not attach any special meaning to them.

Since deciding that they were something she was “manifesting”, there was now a rather obvious reason why they would cause her mental radar to flash and become more excited about them. Every time she saw a red car, it would now appear to “confirm” that she was “manifesting” them whereas in reality it merely confirmed that her mind was much more attuned to noticing them and giving them unusual significance.

When I challenged her on this, she responded a little defensively along the lines of “Look, are you saying I don’t know myself?” but I think she was missing the point. Confirmation bias is a very common human blind spot which is bound to influence our perceptions of reality and so there’s nothing insulting about the suggestion that we are all prone to this type of error.

In fact, neuroscientists confirm that we all have a network of neurons in our brains which is designed to reinforce our beliefs and suspicions in this way. We are flooded with so much sensory information on a daily basis that the only way to cope with it all is to filter much of it out. The brain’s “reticular activating system” manages all of this sensory overwhelm by picking and choosing what we notice based on what may be important to us. As a result, you are more likely to notice whatever you focus on. However, you are not “manifesting” it. You are simply more attuned to it, which is not the same thing at all.

The problem is that people can get so excited about reaching supernatural conclusions that they often find it hard to step back and accept more down-to-earth explanations. I’m fairly confident that things would have worked out very differently had she had set herself the challenge of “manifesting” green penguins instead of red cars. I would be fascinated to know how many green penguins would suddenly have appeared in her neighbourhood simply as a result of thinking about them.

The second psychological factor is magical thinking. Human beings love to leap to magical conclusions about phenomena that can very easily be explained in a much more simple and down-to-earth ways. The problem with believing that we simply notice more red cars when our minds are focused on them is that it’s actually a rather boring explanation. The truth is often boring rather than sexy.

Let’s face it. It’s just so much more fun, exciting and empowering to believe that our minds are capable of directly altering physical reality with our thoughts. That’s a superpower that Gandalf might be jealous of and it means we get to live in a magical world. It may appeal to that child-like part of ourselves that never really dies and always wanted to believe in fairy tales. The problem is that wanting to believe something doesn’t make it true and is in fact a very good reason to believe it’s false since the belief stems from wishful thinking.

Another reason why so many people subscribe to this magical belief in the law of attraction is a common misinterpretation of coincidences. For example, I once met a woman who claimed it was the only way to explain why a friend she had not been in touch with for a very long time suddenly called her on the same day that she had been thinking about him. In her view, it “must” have been because her thoughts “manifested” that reality.

What she described certainly seems like an extraordinary coincidence when viewed as a single event in isolation. However, when we zoom out and look at all the different things that can happen during a person’s life then it all starts to look very different. I would argue that experiencing several coincidences of this kind over the course of an entire lifetime is inevitable once understood mathematically. There is an almost zero percent chance of never experiencing such a coincidence especially given how many times we think about various people with almost constant access to a phone.

She may have thought of her other friends many thousands of times and yet it only happened a relatively small number of times that she thought of someone and they happened to call on the same day. Mathematically speaking, we might expect that to happen far more often. The fact that it was someone she hadn’t thought about for a very long time on one of those occasions doesn’t change the overall picture that much.

A good way to understand the probabilities is to think of a large glass jar filled with tiny balls each marked with a different number. When we shake the jar, what are the chance of two balls that have a difference of only 1 between them, such as “2,134” and “2,135”, appearing right next to each other? The answer simply depends on how many times you shake the jar…

If you shook the jar only once and got that result then you might be right in calling that outcome an extraordinary coincidence. However, if you keep shaking the jar thousands of times it becomes inevitable that these kinds of coincidences will eventually happen several times. Life is a lot like that because there are so many variables that are constantly being thrown around in a similar manner. It is inevitable that some variable outcomes will occasionally coincide but the common mistake is to look at such coincidences as though they are the result of merely one “shake of the jar”.

I will add more on this topic later but those are my initial thoughts.

This post is from the really interesting book blog.

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